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They Might Have to Lock Us Up

July 26, 2011

The subject is memorization.  As in: in preparation for November, we’re trying to memorize as much of Perfect Lives as we can.  We’re in the process of re-crafting arrangements for each episode, and those of us who know we’ll be doing a lead or co-lead part are starting to cozy up to our libretti (thanks to Melody!) and get the text committed to memory.

Paul & I have previously discussed our limitations with memorizing specific phrases and melodic information.  [I wrote & performed a piece for Paul’s concert series that forces the performer to remember specific words to trigger specific musical phrases in an effort to get better at this.] Our goals last time around didn’t place an emphasis on honing such skills; the looseness of the June performances begins on some level with witnessing the readers holding the words in their hands, reading rather than reciting.  While we’re not aiming for a complete staging of Perfect Lives (more on that in a future post), we would like to tighten up some of the previous looseness, ideally without sacrificing too much atmosphere.  Staging and arranging concerns can be elevated when more text has been memorized, not to mention attention to the rhythmic detail that makes the original performances so elusive.  That said, these texts are daunting and not all of us are crack memorizers!

I have some real mnemotechnic strengths – geography, phone numbers, names of media items, anything involving combinations of numbers and letters.  This was a boon when I worked in a library.  Isolated data I’m great with, but assembling meaning and structure is difficult.  In the seven years I’ve known the piece, I’ve memorized large swaths of one to three line chunks of Perfect Lives (the title of this post, for example, nearly…), but I’ve never tried to assemble them into something larger.  One of my first steps in more broadly investigating the piece was reading Frances Yates‘s The Art of Memory.  Ashley has said he was greatly influenced by it (as well as the Tibetan Book of the Dead) in the creation of Perfect Lives, and Giordano Bruno pops up throughout, explicitly and implicitly as the man who remembered everything.  It’s been four or five years, but almost nothing in The Art of Memory stuck with me, I was much more affected by Yates’s Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition and bits of Bruno & Ficino I read (although I won’t claim to be able to make much sense of the Bruno without the aid of excessive mediating scholarship).  Memorization as a process, a metaphor, a way of life, etc. is so relevant to content, setting, and form of the piece, and it seems like really knowing the piece, having any deep relationship with it, will inevitably involve memorizing at least parts of it.  Kyle Gann’s claim of memorizing “The Park” seems significant in its lore – this type of memorization is part of how it’s been animated throughout its existence.  It may not be as simple as conjuring mental houses and storing paragraphs into the details of rooms, but we’ll find a way to get this into our brains and hopefully everyone will be better served because of it.  But if you have any tips, we’re open to them!


One Comment leave one →
  1. August 26, 2011 2:54 pm

    Remembering is a problem.

    As the other (most likely worse) poor memorizer, I’d like to chime in here with the distinction between memorizing and comfortably memorizing.

    I have “memorized” many things as a vocal performer, but so easily does this stuff leave me after performances, that I can’t honestly say that I know the pieces. This is no different for my own words.

    Memory lapses happen [on stage] all the time. During thingNY’s run of ADDDDDDDDD ( I forgot lines and forgot orders of lines, all of which slowed down the momentum of the speech. I forgot parts of my monologue (that I wrote) during some of the performances of the current thingNY opera project, in fact, I can’t safely say I’ve memorized the title ( – this is the short url). But I always thought of these things as memorized.

    I’m much more honest with myself when it comes to music. I have never conducted a piece without score. I once came close: I even approached the podium for Shostakovich’s 5th without the score, only to dart back to get it just before starting. At that point I could have notated the entire first movement from memory, but what if I pointed to that goddamn percussionist one bar too early?

    I’m going to memorize the Supermarket episode. But I’m not going to comfortably memorize the Supermarket scene and will be using the beautiful books (thanks, Melody). Here’s why: Rhythmic structures in this piece are paramount. One wrong word, taking up one too many syllables, going one little beat past a five-beat count, will screw up my flow, and I’m afraid I won’t recover. The lines are not even measured in terms of cadence. Cadences occur mid phrase, there are omitted colons and commas.

    Above all else, I’ll be performing it comfortably, and as the piece itself doesn’t require any discomfort to be successful, I can live with that.


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